Some people are calling it the Third Industrial Revolution. That may be hype, but it is going to be big; probably the biggest thing since the Internet, and nearly as revolutionary.
It is additive manufacturing or three-dimensional printing, most commonly known as 3D printing. It is the process of making three-dimensional solid objects from digital designs.
The first working 3D printer was created by Chuck Hull of 3D Systems Inc. in 1984. Currently, there is a $1.7 billion market for 3D printing. By 2015, that number is expected to double.
In its simplest form, 3D printing uses a polymer or plastic feedstock to make a three-dimensional object from a computer-aided design (CAD). The printers make passes over a platform, depositing thin layer upon thin layer of material, until the design is accurately reproduced. Architects and automobile designers were early users of the technology; they could see what
that new building or car would look like without making a traditional model.
Medicine also has been an early beneficiary. A brain surgeon can make an absolute model of a patient’s head before operating. Take, for example, the case of a child who lost his hearing in one ear because a bone deformity was blocking the canal. The surgeon knew exactly how to proceed, aided by a 3D-printed model of the child’s head.
In another medical example, a large German manufacturer of dental implants and related products has gone from traditional molds to 3D-printed parts. Increasingly, 3D printing is being used to create prosthetic devices.
In Holland, a firm is attempting to print a house. DUS architects in Amsterdam is using a 3D printer which is big enough to make one room at a time for a traditional canal house.
Some parts of modern aircraft are made with 3D printers. General Electric, which bought a feedstock supplier a decade ago, is working on its own additives — as the raw material is known — and will use 3D in its turbine manufacture.
The trick for large, serious manufacturing is in the adaptive feed stock. Not everything can be made of colored plastic. Wood, metal and other materials can and are being used. To get the wooden parts of their canal house right, the Dutch architects are using wood shavings mixed with a polymer. They say the result has all the characteristics of real wood; you can drive a nail into it, plane and saw it.
Metal objects are created using a technique known as sintering. In this application, metal powder is heated to a point below its melting point and when applied with a laser, it fuses into a sheet. Next year, patents on the metal sintering technology run out. There will be a giant leap forward in the 3D industries when inventors do not have to worry about getting expensive licenses or violating patents inadvertently.
The Pentagon has been excited about 3D printing but has its own set of legacy problems. For example, it is reported to have deployed portable 3D printers to Afghanistan, but the parts they make there have not been certified as required by military rules and congressional fiat. If you make a part in the field, say, for a Humvee, how do you certify it as meeting standards when you are on the move and need to get the Humvee up and running again?
Likewise, as a consumer, if you need a tool or a replacement part for a coffee maker part, do you have the right to make them? Can you be prosecuted as music-downloaders have been? The practice of 3D law also looks set to take off, and firms across the United States are exploring the intriguing legal issues of copyright and patent infringement that 3D printing presents.
So far the market is sharply divided between consumer printers, which sell for under $1,000, and sophisticated, high-end machines that can make parts for aircraft or model a new car. The first machines sold in shops rather than on the Internet are appearing, and UPS is experimenting with putting 3D printers in its stores. The race is on.